First-graders sounded out the word “stop” as their teacher Cassie Murphy pointed to letters on the board at Chief Charlo Elementary on Friday.
“St-a-p,” she said, clapping when she finished pronouncing the word.
Murphy is one of many Missoula County Public Schools teachers who are implementing the new Daily5 lessons that accompany the new elementary English language arts curriculum that the district approved last spring.
Phonics — the practice of teaching children how letters and letter combinations sound — is a large focus of the new curriculum. To understand how to spell, children must understand the sounds the letters represent, and that some words with different spellings sound the same, such as f-air, c-are and h-eir.
On Friday, each student grabbed a small whiteboard and a marker to write out words that Murphy sounded out.
“The next word is trip,” she said. “Say it slow. Tr-i-p. What’s the first sound you hear?” she said. “Tr-trr-trr.”
With each word, Murphy emphasized combinations of letters that created certain sounds. After students had a chance to write out the word, she called on first-grader Gavin Ries to bring his whiteboard to the front of the room.
“The sound is ‘tr,’” Reis said.
“And what two letters say ‘tr’?” Murphy said.
“T-r,” Reis said.
The district’s attempt to overhaul English language arts is aimed at ensuring that students are receiving the same level of instruction and that there’s equity and consistency across the board.
Elise Guest, executive director of teaching and learning for the district, said the goal is to have guaranteed and viable curriculum.
“Guaranteed is no matter what teacher you get, no matter what school you go to, you’re given an opportunity to have access to this curriculum that is aligned to the Common Core,” she said. “The viable piece is making sure that whatever we decide has the most priority … ''
The new curriculum is also part of the district’s effort to get kids to the grade-level bar for achievement and make sure they’re set up for the next school year.
Last year, an English language arts task force team made of teachers, administrators and special education specialists, among others, met to look at current data for the district to evaluate current practices and see where the gaps were.
The team realized that teachers were using a wide variety of materials.
The intent of the task force was to recommend common materials for everyone to use, which Guest said will make district-wide professional development days more productive because teachers can compare the different ways they teach the same materials and share what works and what doesn’t work.
Before looking at new materials, the task force looked at student achievement data and created a wish list based on what students needed.
“For K-3, their scores were low for phonics instruction so we wanted to see a material that had really strong phonics,” Guest said.
The importance of phonics was disregarded by many teachers for years when “whole language” proponents pushed the idea of teaching kids to read whole words instead of focusing on letters and combinations of letters.
The debate over the correct way to teach reading led the U.S. Congress to establish the National Reading Panel to review research on reading. The reading panel released a report in 2000 which showed that teaching children how letters sounded improved reading achievement and comprehension.
Because of the different schools of thought on how to teach reading, some teachers might not have learned to teach phonics or realized the importance of it as a daily part of lessons.
In the second part of Murphy’s Daily5 lesson, students split up into groups or ventured off on their own to practice various reading, listening, spelling and writing activities.
At one table, students used lined sheets of paper to write letters. Riley Eggert, a first-grader dressed in camouflage overalls with a matching shirt underneath, took the time to work on his Christmas list. At another table, Murphy worked with small groups and individual students to sound out and spell words that corresponded to pictures on flashcards. Murphy held up a flashcard with a picture of a stamp on it.
“St-a-mp,” she said, as Grant Cadena spelled out the word on a worksheet.
The flashcards and books students used at their workstations are some of the new ReadyGEN curriculum materials that elementary teachers are using across the district.
Murphy has adopted the lessons with ease, but not all teachers were excited about the change at a school board meeting last May when the task force shared their selection for the curriculum. Teachers cited concerns that lesson plans would become scripted or “canned” and that they wouldn’t have much room for creativity.
A lot of the concerns came from high school teachers, who are still in an opt-in pilot phase of testing out the EngageNY curriculum the district selected for middle and high schools. Guest said she understands that it’s difficult for teachers to adopt new materials.
“Teachers are really connected to what they teach so they spend so much time developing their units and lessons and that becomes a reflection of you,” she said. “So having somebody come in and recommend something different than what you teach or you like to teach, I think that’s really difficult.”
Guest emphasized the amount of time the task force put into the process of selecting the new curriculum, which included researching materials and reaching out to companies to present to the schools and teach lessons.
Implementing any curriculum is a multi-year process. Hatton Littman, MCPS communications director, said the district plans to look closely at test scores through IRLA reading assessments; STAR testing, which occurs three times throughout the year, and SBAC testing, which occurs annually.
The district is also in the process of researching new math curriculum materials, which officials will present to the board in the spring, Guest said.